Suffolk Quality Cleaners closes after 72 years

Published 9:58 pm Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Tom Williams has been a hands-on owner of Suffolk Quality Cleaners ever since he bought the West Washington Street store in 1987.

He waits on customers, works the pressers, handles all of the billing and payroll and makes any needed repairs. He does it all.

But after 72 years — 32 of those with Williams running it — the store stopped taking clothes Saturday and will close for good after everyone picks up their items and he empties everything out, which will take place over the next two weeks.

Email newsletter signup

“The equipment’s getting older, I’m getting older, my employees are getting older … I’m a hands-on owner-manager. You can’t find anyone to work on dry cleaning equipment,” Williams said.

He’s still ordering parts to fix machinery in the downtown Suffolk store, which was designed to be a dry cleaners when it originally opened in 1947. He worked on a pants unit last week and had to order another part for it. To fix it, Williams has to lie down on the floor, not something the 67-year old is fond of.

“I’m getting too old for that,” Williams said. “I enjoy doing it, but I’m too old for crawling on the floor.”

The work is demanding for Williams and his 10 employees, who work out of three locations — at 807 W. Washington St., 2815-D. Godwin Blvd. and at 70 E. Windsor Blvd. in Windsor. All three stores are closing.

When Williams took over operations of the store, he went to dry cleaning school in Maryland for three weeks to learn how to operate the equipment.

“I knew zero about dry cleaning,” he said.

Now, ask him anything about any machine in the downtown store now and he can rattle off exactly what it does, how it works and what it would take to fix it.

The physicality of the work has taken its toll, not only on him, but also on his staff. Williams nearly shut down the store a couple of years ago after having difficulty with inflammatory arthritis that made him incapable of lifting anything for about a year and a half. He also had to deal with the aftermath of the recession that reduced the amount of business he was getting.

He made the decision to close the store in June after one of his longtime employees notified him of her intention to retire after 25 years. This summer, he said, has been much slower than in summers past. With that, the physical nature of the work, as well as his age and that of the equipment, Williams called time on the store.

That didn’t make it easier when he broke the news to his employees July 30. Both he and they shed tears.

“I told them, and some of them were crying and they (couldn’t) believe it,” Williams said. “My wife was with me, and I teared up too. It was very sentimental.”

Customers have shed some tears also as word has spread about the store’s closure, and he said he shed more tears after he shut off the pressers for the final time Tuesday.

Williams explained his philosophy of running the store, reading from a handout he has been giving customers as they pick up items for the last time.

“The manager and staff want to thank you for your friendship, loyalty and business,” Williams said. “You notice I didn’t put business first. (I put) the friendship and the loyalty first. We’ve gotten that way. We know people. … They’re not just people who come and give you a dollar. They’re people you bond to.”

No one should be fooled into thinking Williams isn’t going to stay active.

After a brief break to recharge, he plans to dive into work with the Boys and Girls Club, and perhaps get back into working with the Boy Scouts, things he hasn’t had time to do while working every day for the past 32 years.

Besides, if he stays home too much, he said, he’d only drive his wife crazy.

“I’m energetic,” Williams said. “I do want to spend time and learn and guide and help teach kids, and that’s what I’m hoping to do once I settle down and take a break.”